Friday, October 24, 2008

The Accessibility of Good Design

The other day, while researching a project for my advanced studio class, I found my way in to the store “Design Within Reach”. I was there to take a few photographs and a couple of measurements, and to draw a few sketches. I have been in to Design Within Reach several times in the past, recalling each time being inspired by the objects the store contained.  As the name implies, good design isn’t far away or hard to get, in fact it is right there at your fingertips. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly seem to be the case. In my observation, good design is, in fact, quite expensive and inaccessible to the masses.

                The idea of good design being reserved for the upper class and those who are higher up on the economic ladder is not a new one. In the days of early America, it would usually be only the head of the family who would sit in a hand crafted, well made chair. The other members of the family would usually sit in much less desirable and significantly more primitive stools. In this day and age, however, with much more advanced production technologies, cheaper production costs, and so on, why is it that good design is still reserved for those lucky few? Can good design exist in conjunction with cheap or accessible design?

                This past summer, a few weeks before returning to school for the start of the fall semester, I was reading a new design book. While thumbing through the nearly three hundred pages of images and text, I noticed a lamp made out of translucent orange rubber that could be bent and distorted in to a variety of different, unusual shapes. I immediately fell in love with the object. A little later, I went on the internet to find out more about it. After a little bit of research I found the lamp in question on the company website. It retailed for one hundred and ten dollars. Relatively speaking, that is probably about an average price for a high design object from a name brand, in this case it was the Italian company Luceplan. I was feeling a little bit disheartened by the cost, but I decided not to quit just yet. I continued on to Ebay on a whim, searched for the lamp and found one, just one, up for bid. At that point, only one other person had put up a bid and the lamp was up to a whopping five dollars. With only a day or so left in the bidding war, I decided to place my bid. I put twenty dollars on the line, which was enough to make me the highest bidder. In a few hours I was informed I won the lamp (which was brand new, by the way) for a mere twelve dollars and fifty cents, plus a four dollar shipping and handling fee. In five days, I had the lamp plugged in in my bedroom wall outlet warming me up with its soft orange glow. Sixteen fifty was a reasonable price for what I received, a simple molded rubber shell, a light bulb, and an electrical cord.

                An incredibly simple lamp it was. Far more minimalist in concept, materials, etc. that, say, my desk lamp (twenty dollars from Ikea) or my floor lamp (twenty five dollars from Home Depot). All of these lamps that I own accomplish their jobs just fine, one not superior in any way that the other. Why then, did one cost originally over four times as much as the others?

                Some might say that it is because of the name brand that it costs so much. But I refuse to believe that the answer is as simple as that. I had certainly never seen a lamp quite like the one I had just purchased. Perhaps it is good design because it is new and innovative, but shouldn’t simple and therefore cost effective be included in that description? A huge part of good design, I believe, is that it moves forward the current design dialogue, provides innovative solutions, is entirely functional and aesthetically pleasing, but also sustainable, cost efficient, and reasonable in its creation. Can an object be considered good design if it is awful for the environment, or unattainably expensive or rare? Can a diamond encrusted sofa, comfort and looks aside, ever be considered good design? I’d have to argue no under most, if not all circumstances. It’s just a bit to unattainable, I feel, to have a genuine or meaningful contribution to the design world in the noblest sense. It may bring something new to the table, but that alone doesn’t make it good.

                It seems to me that good design and effective use of materials and cost should go hand in hand and be one in the same. Imagine an object so elegant and efficient, yet remarkably minimal in every sense of the word. This kind of object would be naturally inexpensive and entirely accessible. It would use less material, cheaper and cleaner processes, and it would work well. Cheap while being effective seems like true good design in my book.

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